What Exactly Is Teflon? And Do I Need to Worry About It?

updated Mar 1, 2024
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Eggs cooked on stove in nonstick skillet
Credit: Sarah Crowley

Nonstick cookware is a great convenience — besides being able to use less oil for cooking, it makes cleanup a breeze. No scrubbing off stuck on fried eggs after breakfast? I’ll take it! But in recent years, nonstick coatings like Teflon have come under fire, to the point where many people have abandoned their nonstick cookware.

Are those fears still founded? Were they ever? We did some research to find out.

Quick Overview

What Is Teflon?

Teflon is a brand name for the chemical coating PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) that is used to make cookware nonstick. First made in the 1930s, it’s known for its use in cookware, although it can also be used to coat other materials like wires or fabrics to make them waterproof.

Is Teflon Safe?

PTFE falls under a larger category of chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), also known as “forever chemicals.” These chemicals can be found in a huge amount of items we come into contact with everyday from household items to food packaging. 

In addition to their grease-proofing capabilities, PFAS make products resistant to water, oil, heat, and staining. Their strong chemical bond, which makes them durable, however, also means they stick around in the environment for a very long time. 

The Environmental Protection Agency states that “PFAS are found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the nation and the globe. Because of their widespread use and their persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment.”

Studies have shown that exposure to high levels of PFAS increases risk for certain types of cancer, low fertility rates, and immune deficiency. Concerns over exposure to PFAS have led to efforts to curb their use. In a recent example, the Food and Drug Administration announced that “grease-proofing materials containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are no longer being sold for use in food packaging in the U.S.”

Is Teflon Legal?

The concern over using Teflon has to do with a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (also shortened and called PFOA), which was used to make Teflon until 2013. Trace amounts of this chemical could be found on cookware, even though it was meant to burn off during the manufacturing process, and PFOA is linked to health conditions like chronic kidney disease, thyroid disorders, liver disease, testicular cancer, infertility, and low birth weight.

The chemical was so ubiquitous in the United States that more than 98 percent of people in a 1999 study had it in their blood (not necessarily from cooking, but from other environmental exposure as well). That led to a program called the PFOA Stewardship Program by the EPA to get eight leading PFOA companies, including DuPont, the maker of Teflon (they have since spun it off into a separate company called Chemours), to eliminate PFOA use by 2015. Which they did, ahead of schedule, in 2013.

Should I Be Worried About Using Teflon Cookware?

PTFE (Teflon) is now made without PFOA in the US. PFAS don’t pose zero risk, but those most at risk are exposed to these chemicals at much higher rates (for instance if they work in or live near a production facility) than what you would be exposed to from using a nonstick pan. 

Enrico Dinges, the press officer at the FDA stated that, “At this time, the FDA is not aware of any research demonstrating that the use of authorized PFAS substances in cookware presents a safety concern for consumers,” in a 2023 interview with America’s Test Kitchen. 

PFAS are so prevalent as to almost be ubiquitous in our daily lives. While being aware of the risks is important, removing one source of exposure (nonstick cookware) won’t eliminate risk completely. What we do recommend if you’re not keen to toss your nonstick cookware is taking some simple steps to ensure you’re using it safely.

Tips for Using Teflon Cookware

  • Don’t use metal utensils. Metal can scrape and damage the nonstick coating, which can raise the potential for PFAs to be released. Opt for a wooden spoon, or spatulas made of rubber or silicone instead.
  • Preheat with fat. Nonstick coatings can emit harmful fumes at very high temperatures. If you preheat a nonstick pan with fat (like oil or butter) instead of empty, it will begin to sputter and smoke well before the pan gets hot enough to begin emitting fumes.
  • Don’t stick them under the broiler. ‘Broil’ is the highest temperature setting for most home ovens, often exceeding 500 degrees. These extremely high temperatures can damage nonstick coatings and cause them to emit harmful fumes that can cause fever, chills, and headaches when inhaled.
  • Check manufacturer’s instructions. Always check for specific manufacturer recommendations of how to safely use and clean your specific cookware.
  • Know the limits of your cookware. The nonstick coating on cookware will naturally wear away over time. Expect to have to replace even the best quality nonstick cookware after 2 to 3 years of regular use.